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November 2008


The Ports of Oporto
By Baroness Sheri de Borchgrave

Northern Portugal is home to a lingering outpost of the British Empire stretching from the city of Oporto down through the rolling hill vineyards of the Douro River Valley. Brits have been making and exporting fortified wine here in the heart of Port wine country for more than three centuries. Today they still dominate the industry, producing some 10 million cases of Port every year.

On a recent trip to this Anglicized enclave I rode by boat along the winding Douro. The river, now tamed by a dam, was once so treacherous with rapids that it claimed many lives, including that of the Baron Forrester, a legendary Port trader who drowned there in 1861. It's now customary for boats to cut their engines at the spot where the Baron met his tragic end and raise a glass in his honor. Feeling like an upper-crust colonialist, I dutifully toasted my aristocratic forebear with a chilled glass of dry white Fonseca Siroco Port. Toasting alongside me was Adrian Bridge, director of Taylor Fladgate—the Chateau Latour of Port wine houses.

Bridge is literally married to the business (his wife, Natasha, is the daughter of Alistair Robertson, the company chairman and descendant of one of its founding families). Founded in 1692, Taylor Fladgate also owns former competitors Croft (founded in 1588) and Fonseca (founded in 1822). The Port wine behemoth now controls some 1.4 million vines, producing grapes destined for enormous wood barrels where the juice will age for up to 40 years.

Port, a by-product of history, long ago outlived its original raison d'etre. The first bottles were created for the British market after traders were cut off from their Bordeaux supply by war with the French. Importing robust reds from Portugal, they fortified them with strong spirit so they wouldn't spoil en route. This added grape spirit still makes up 20 percent of the mix.

Top Port is made, as it's always been, through foot treading the grapes in large granite lagares by village folk with plenty of stamina. Joined at the arms in two rows of 26, they stomp for hours to live rhythmic music. No machine, say producers, extracts the color and tannins quite as effectively as the human foot (though a piston plunging machine called "Port toes," used on lesser Ports, makes a valiant attempt).

While production methods remain frozen in time, Port wine drinkers have started to change. Adrian and Natasha—the winery's chief blender—are giving the libation a 21st-century makeover. These days, younger, more casual drinkers are gravitating toward ready-to-drink varieties such as Late Bottled Vintage and Tawny—aged up to 40 years before being sealed.

At the tasting lodge in the Gaia section of Oporto, Natasha led me through her company's various brands, pointing out the stylistic differences between them. Taylor, she explained, is especially elegant and known for its structure and balance. Its aged Tawny is aromatic with honey and vanilla when young, and with dried fruit and nuts in older varieties. Taylor's single-estate vintage Quinta de Vargellas is celebrated for its intense violet fragrance.

The more concentrated Fonseca has a bigger, rounder, flamboyant style. Its flagship, Bin No. 27, features gorgeous black currant and cherry flavors, while its aged Tawny releases an aromatic spectrum of cinnamon, butterscotch, walnut and spice. Winemaker David Guimaraens, who traces his lineage to the family that first started Fonseca, recently released fruity, floral Terra Bella, the world's first organic Port.

Croft, the last of the three properties, produces Ports Natasha described as very British in style. Their Quinta da Roeda vineyard is one of the greatest quintas in the Douro River Valley, producing a wine with intense fruitiness and floral notes. The excellent 2003 Vintage Port, said to be the finest since 1963, is sweet, lush and complex.

While Port is most often served with cheese or dessert—to cap off a fabulous meal—Croft Pink, Adrian and Natasha's latest innovation, is the maverick rose Port designed to kick-start a meal. Served on ice as an aperitif, it was the hot sipper among European fashionistas last summer. Is it a passing fad? Or will the Facebook generation replace the British Empire as the new drinkers of Port?